Facilitator Co-Debriefing

Philip Gamaghelyan
Christopher Littlefield

November 2012

This essay was written while Phillip was pursuing his Ph.D. at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), George Mason University and Christopher was doing conflict resolution training and consulting in Beruit, Lebanon. Click on their names (above) for more information on their backgrounds.

Facilitator co-debriefing is closely linked to the practice of facilitation. According to Spangler, "in the context of U.S. alternative dispute resolution (ADR), facilitation (or group facilitation) is generally considered to be a process in which a neutral person helps a group work together more effectively. Facilitators may work with small groups within an organization, or with representatives of different organizations who are working together in a collaborative or consensus-building process."[1] Co-debriefing, then, is a process in which the facilitators allocate a specific time prior, during, and after the program they facilitated to engage in reflective practice,[2] a process designed for learning from practice.

Co-debriefing has a number of aims: it helps the facilitators to improve the facilitation process by identifying and attending to any hidden dynamics that can hinder the progress of the group they are working with; it helps to create synergy within the facilitation team; and it also contributes to personal development of individual facilitators.

The Facilitation Team as a Group

Facilitators always work with groups and are well aware of group dynamics. That's well acknowledged. What is less acknowledged, however, is that the facilitators (unless they work alone) are also a group and go through a group process of their own. Whether working as a pair, a small group of three or four, or a larger group, they (like other groups) go through stages of group life often referred to as "Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing." Facilitator co-debriefing, therefore, can be regarded as a facilitation of the team of facilitators, helping them work together more effectively.

The Benefits of Co-Debriefing for the Facilitation Process

The primary aim of the ongoing co-debriefing is to ensure that the team of facilitators is effective. As with any other group, the team of facilitators will be dealing with a number of dynamics, such as issues of power, roles, leadership, personal triggers,[3] differing assessment of the progress that their process and participants are making, and competing views on necessary intervention. Additional issues that often arise have to do with outside factors — for example, other work commitments or family situations — which can affect the motivation and the energy level of the facilitators. Since facilitators are trained to recognize these dynamics when working with groups, they are usually capable of dealing with these issues on their own. We argue, however, that acknowledging these dynamics openly and working with them as a group can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the team of facilitators.

Key Issues

The key issues that we recommend each team of facilitators attend to include: power, roles, leadership, triggers, differing assessments of where the group is in the desired process, and conflicts.

Whether the team includes senior and junior facilitators, females and males, facilitators with academic status and others without, someone responsible for the funding and hiring of the others, or any other arrangement, power dynamics are always present. Facilitator co-debriefing allows these dynamics to be made explicit, preventing the development of resentment, role confusion, sabotage, or latent conflicts.

The roles of facilitators are also of major importance, particularly in facilitation teams of three and larger. Do some of the facilitators have a past working relationship, while others are new to the team? Are there differences in the group regarding the core values and preferred process/model of facilitation? If yes, are these differences discussed and a consensus reached? Are the roles of the junior facilitators well defined, and are the junior facilitators themselves comfortable with this role?

Facilitation, particularly when working with creative and conflict groups, is a highly intense process. Triggers, upsets, and minor or major conflicts within the team of facilitators are an inevitable part of the process. The ongoing co-debriefing provides the space where these triggers and conflicts are attended to as they arise, not allowing for deeper conflicts or baggage to develop. In cases when full conflict develops, the co-debriefing allows for a conflict resolution process so the conflict is acknowledged and resolved (thereby strengthening of the team), instead of manifesting itself during the actual facilitation and potentially sabotaging the group process.

In addition to the dynamics within the facilitation team, co-debriefing also provides a format for ongoing assessment of the group progress and adjustment of the program, maximizing the effectiveness of the process — all goals associated with formative evaluation. Each facilitator has a different perspective and experience of what is happening in the group process. The co-debriefing sessions are an opportunity to share and reflect on perspectives and discuss why those perspectives exist: is the group burned out; are the facilitators tired; is there an unattended conflict in the group; is some faction dominating the conversation; or is there a World Cup on TV and the group is distracted? The co-debriefing process helps the team of facilitators develop awareness and consensus, adjust the process moving forward, and be transparent about it with each other and with the group they are facilitating.

Personal Growth

Often as facilitators, our primary focus is on the participants we are working with and on their group process, but facilitation is also an ongoing learning process for the facilitator herself. By setting personal and professional development goals, sharing areas each team member wants to improve in herself, and tools and activities that can be tried with the group, the co-debriefing process becomes an opportunity for real-time feedback, exposing blind spots, and contributing to self-reflection and personal growth.

The Aims of Pre-Program, In-Program, and Post-Program Co-Debriefings

The pre-program, in-program, and post-program co-debriefings have different aims. The pre-program debriefing is key for creating harmonious relationships between and among facilitators. During the program, co-debriefings are important both for attending to the ongoing dynamics among and between the facilitators, and also for providing a forum for assessment of the facilitation process and discussion of needed adjustments to the process or structure that can be made. The post-program debriefings are important for discussing the achievements of the program, for giving and receiving positive feedback and constructive criticism, for discussing personal growth, and for sharing acknowledgements. This stage is also important for developing a vision for the future, discussing big picture issues which are outside of the scope of the particular program.

Process of Co-Debriefing

Co-Debriefing should be done on an as-needed basis. When we don't want to do it, that often indicates that we need to! It is a good practice in multi-day sessions to co-debrief each night for a half-hour to an hour. During longer programs or in work environments, a once-a-week meeting may be more appropriate. It is important to set aside specific times for co-debriefing; otherwise, routine tasks are likely to fill in the days without leaving time for it.

It is also important to establish horizontal relationships for the co-debriefing process. The roles of different facilitators in the program itself can be different: some might be lead facilitators with others helping, or some might have particular expertise that others do not possess. Yet it is important that during the co-debriefing, the roles change and all are able to facilitate the co-debriefing process, take turns leading the discussion, and feel free to speak their minds. This is necessary in order to have everyone's full input in the process, ensure that all voices are heard, no one feels dominated, latent conflicts do not develop, there is no sabotage, and that the process contributes to everyone's personal growth.

Other than scheduling time for it, and ensuring the horizontality of relations, the process of co-debriefing is open-ended. The group itself decides what is important to discuss at a particular point, how much time to spend on each topic, and in what format. The needs of the group will be situational and will vary from one meeting to another. Similar to other groups, when the team of facilitators is just forming, the focus is likely to be on trust-building, getting acquainted with each other's values and working styles, and agreeing on roles. As the group moves toward norming and performing stages, issues of power, leadership, and ongoing processes of mutual acknowledgments become important. At this stage, conflicts are likely to arise and need to be addressed.

Here are a number of suggested questions that can help to start a co-debriefing process:

  1. How is everyone feeling after today's sessions?
  2. Do we have any highlights or concerns that we would like to share in regard to the facilitated group?
    1. It is recommended that concerns are shared as questions or observations for others to discuss. Example: Facilitator One: "I felt that Joe seemed really frustrated and disengaged with the process today. Did you feel that or is it just me?" Facilitator Two: "Oh, I forgot to tell you... I talked to him during the break, and it turns out he just called home and his son is really sick and in the hospital."
    2. If a concern comes up that is not addressed as easily as the above example, this is a great time to brainstorm possible follow-up actions. Facilitator One: "After our heated discussion today, I noticed that Ines sat alone at lunch. Did anyone speak with her?" Facilitator Two: "No, but I know that I walked away pretty exhausted and fried myself, and if I am feeling that, I am sure the participants are as well. I think tonight we may want to do something really fun and light to shift the mood. Also I have a good relationship with Ines; I will check in with her at dinner. What do you all think?"
  3. What is our plan for our next session?
  4. What did each of us learn today or what did each get trained in?
    1. The above question is a great way to have people reflect on what they have learned. It is also a great place for team members to acknowledge where they think they could have improved. Example: Facilitator One: "Folks, I want to apologize for intervening in the session you were leading without coordinating with you. In the future, I will be more considerate."
  5. What do you want to be acknowledged for today, and by whom?
    1. The above question is a great one to end a co-debriefing session. It is often uncomfortable and awkward, at first, for people to ask and answer the question, but it encourages people to acknowledge each others' accomplishments, and it helps others know and understand what matters to each individual. Example: Facilitator One: "What do you want to be acknowledged for, and by whom?" Facilitator Two: "Today was really tough for me. It was the first time I had a group really challenge me on an exercise I was leading. Even though they challenged me, I felt I held my group and they all loved the exercise in the end. I felt really good after that. I want to be acknowledged by Facilitator One!" Facilitator One: "I am so glad you said that... I was very impressed by how well you handled the session when the group challenged you today. That exercise really made a huge difference for the group. Amazing work!"

Word of Caution

While scheduling regular times for co-debriefing is key for successful co-facilitation, it is important not to over-structure the process. Otherwise, it risks becoming mechanical and artificial and makes it harder, not easier, to openly discuss group dynamics. If a feeling of artificiality develops, it is important to shift the focus, bring everyone back into the conversation, and discuss the process of debriefing itself. In these situations, the role of those with positional power is central. If they are open, speak up early (without dominating the conversation), and show genuine vulnerability and desire to learn and face criticism, then the others are also likely to open up. And the openness of those with positional power needs to be genuine. If it is not, it is better not to have such sessions. Few things can sabotage the work of a team as badly as having honest feedback backfire on a junior member of a team.

The second word of caution: if you find yourself co-debriefing late into the night, and even till morning — congratulations. Your process is working! But remember that you also need to sleep. Co-debriefing is there, among other things, to ensure the health and the well-being of fellow co-facilitators

[1] Brad Spangler. "What is Facilitation?" Beyond Intractability. Ed. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA. July 2003. http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/facilitation

[2] Schon, Donald A. 1984. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. 1st ed. Basic Books.
[3] "Trigger," in this context, is a reference to a stimulus that instantly sends us "from 0 to 60" emotionally, disempowering us and stripping us of our ability to communicate clearly and effectively. A coworker or a spouse questions why you did X, and instantly your body starts to get tight, you get defensive, and start to attack when all they did was possibly ask a clarification question. Yet it reactivated some baggage that we carry from the past, making us react. Powerful communication is an ability to regain your power in commonly disempowering situations.

Use the following to cite this article:
Gamaghelyan, Philip and Christopher Littlefield. "Facilitator Co-Debriefing" Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. November, 2012. <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/facilitator-co-debriefing>.

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